I liked Mars better when it had canals instead of boring rocks

We're off to see the Lakebed, the wonderful Lakebed of Mars. It will grant us wealth, culture, scientific insight and ... Sorry, wrong movie. On Mars we will find an evil conspiracy to deprive the inhabitants of air, or a fabulous ancient canal-building civilization, or mudmen. Or, just possibly, yet another dull pile of rocks. NASA gloated that the Spirit rover's first pictures looked precisely the way scientists had expected a dry rock-strewn lakebed on Mars to look. Unfortunately, as Daily Show host Jon Stewart noted, they also looked precisely the way anyone else would have expected a dry rock-strewn lakebed on Mars to look. Indeed, he said, the Red Planet "practically reaches out to bore you."

When I say such things my starry-eyed colleagues claim that had my timid views prevailed, Columbus would never have set sail and mankind would still be living in grass huts in eastern Africa. But wouldn't the same argument apply to going to, say, Jupiter? Sure, it's a giant ball of poisonous corrosive gases that doesn't even have a "surface," though if it did and you landed on it gravity would crush you. But hey, where's your sense of adventure? I still I say if a caveman had looked out of his grass hut and seen that in the next valley it was raining concentrated, 900-degree Celsius sulphuric acid, beyond which lay a huge vacuum, it is prudence and not timidity that would have deterred him from an exploratory stroll.

Look, there's a reason space is called "space." It's basically full of empty. No matter.

Enthusiasts promise us fabulous resources. Such as what? Things not even on the periodic table? Getting oil back from Mars would take more fuel than it was worth. And forget launching giant space fleets from the moon. You'd still have to get the raw material, factories and workers up there. Or, just possibly, we could mine the moon, disturb its orbit and destroy the Earth. Hey, we've set rivers on fire. Besides, if Earth's fabulous resources aren't enough to satisfy our appetites, it means we eat too much.

As to the alleged scientific benefits, do we really need another flavour of Tang? And spare me the post hoc fallacy that because certain inventions were made while man was exploring nearby bits of space they would not have been made otherwise. Science got us to Mars, not the reverse.

I grant that it would be interesting to find evidence of life on Mars. But not very. Given the sheer number of planets out there, the really interesting question remains the one physicist Enrico Fermi asked about intelligent life in 1950: "Where is everybody?" Even if space travel takes too much energy and time, why aren't there radio signals? Dead bacteria on Mars won't tell us that.

The funny thing is that I still say go for it. As my wife regards even the Caribbean as a hostile environment notable for biting insects and even more biting sharks, I regretfully inform NASA that I am no longer available for such a mission. But a trip to Mars beats sitting on the couch. I certainly favour continued work on near-Earth satellites. But spare me "To infinity and beyond."

The Citizen just ran a gung-ho piece by a scientist who wants to terraform Mars, albeit sensitively because "Mars does not belong to America, nor to Earth, nor to human beings" but to life itself. But he also said "Once we become a multi-planet species, our chances to live long and prosper will take a huge leap skyward." Right. Let's go to Mars so when you're lying dead on the smoking remains of the Earth, someone somewhere can still be watching Friends reruns.

That same author confessed to a teenage fascination with 2001: A Space Odyssey which, as the Citizen's Bruce Ward observed on Saturday, is "Considered the best sci-fi movie ever made" though fans can't understand it. Indeed. It was about the connection between our fear of our own mortality and our quest to press ever onward even though, as Buckaroo Banzai eventually told us, "No matter where you go, there you are." At the end Dave encounters the ancient mystery that man is born, lives, grows old and then dies.

Space travel might help you fast-forward to the death bit without all that tedious growing old first. But we cannot dump our problems, from death to confusing movies, into the vacuum of space. It would be cool to send a man to Mars, but he will not come back with the deep wisdom of an ancient civilization for us to grok.

Folks, Mars is a rock and space is mostly space. It is not rock-it science.

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]

ColumnsJohn Robson